The Great Fire of London (1666) destroyed more than 13,000 houses and displaced about 100,000 people but it took a couple of decades for its embers to spark the first blaze of the fire insurance business. Nicholas Barbon was probably the first to recognize the potential of a fire-threat protection business, establishing the first fire insurance office near the Royal Exchange in 1681. The imaginatively named ‘The Insurance Office for Houses on the Backside of the Royal Exchange’ was a mutual scheme for house insurance, guaranteed by a property investment fund. The trust deed allowed Barbon’s firm to insure up to 10,000 houses. However, despite its charming name, it went out of business in around 1710. ‘The Friendly Society for Securing Houses from Loss by Fire’ faired somewhat better, entering the scene in 1683 and issuing 23,000 policies before its demise in 1730. It wasn’t until the launch of the Hand-in-Hand in 1696 that a fire insurance business with longevity took a firm foothold. This was followed by the Sun Fire Office in 1710, the Union in 1714, the Westminster in 1717, the London in 1720, and the Royal Exchange in 1720. Business was booming.
These early initiatives were of three types: mutual societies like the Hand-in-Hand and the Union; unincorporated companies like the Sun (effectively extended partnerships); and privileged chartered monopolies like the Royal Exchange. The latter two types were basically speculative enterprises, preserves of the wealthy and influential. According to insurance historian Trebilcock, they were motivated not by the fire-threat but rather by the potential for investment that they saw in the large capitals accruing from the fire premiums paid by customers. The mutuals on the other hand were humble cliques bent on risk-evasion - the classic associations of small traders and shopkeepers clubbing together for the defence of their property. Here, the customers for fire insurance were also the shareholders. However the chartered companies like the Royal Exchange were the only insurance ventures permitted to enjoy limited liability for shareholders under the terms of the Bubble Act of 1720: legislation designed to curb the speculation underlying the South Sea financial fiasco.
Insurance records survive in varying forms of completeness. Perhaps the best examples of continuous policy registers are for the Sun Fire Office, founded as the Exchange House Fire Office in 1708 by Charles Povey, and renamed in 1710. There were 24 members of the Sun Fire who paid £20 each for interest in the company. By 1720 they had issued over 17,000 policies and claimed to insure sums totalling £10 million. By this time the Sun Fire had moved from its first quarters in Causey’s Coffee House near St.Paul’s to two rooms in a house belonging to Mrs. Alice Garway next door to the Amsterdam Tavern in Sweeting’s Rents. It would remain there until the threat of demolition encouraged a move to the New South Sea House on Threadneedle Street in around 1727.
Along with the other early fire offices, the Sun Fire was compelled to form its own fire brigade. The most suitable men for this work were the watermen from the Thames who were clad in the distinctive livery of their company. The following is an extract from the original proposal forms issued in 1710 and reprinted in a company pamphlet:
“For the farther encouragement of all persons there are actually employed in the service of the office thirty lusty able-body’d firemen who are cloath’d in blue liveries and having silver badges with the Sun mark upon their arms, and twenty able porters likewise, who are always ready to assist in quenching fires and removing goods having given bonds for their fidelity.”
It was the practice of each insurer to issue a badge or fire mark to be affixed to the building that was insured. The Sun Fire issued a mark with a rotund human face, surrounded by a halo of sixteen rays, 8 direct and 8 wavy. It was wrought in lead and painted a bright golden colour. The fire mark was to prevent fraud by obtaining an insurance policy by indirect means after a house had been burned. As the fire brigade would not service a house unless a mark was affixed, a property was not considered to be secure until the mark was in position. It also provided a handy bit of free advertising for the company.
The policy registers have proved to be valuable sources for economic, business and social historians. these records were the head office compilations of orders for insurance from all branches and agencies. The Sun Fire head-office registers form one un-indexed series up to the year 1793, containing 600,000 policies. From 1793 separate registers were maintained, again un-indexed, for London and the provinces. Over 1.3 million entries were made in these in the next 70 years. However, there are some missing volumes and a number of unreadable entries. They summarised relevant information about the building or contents underwritten on each policy. The information reproduced in the registers was geared to the rating of each risk and the control of the insurance premium. Consequently, most entries in the registers describe building materials, neighbouring properties, and occupational hazards associated with each insurance. The risks were classified according to the established formula of Common Insurance, Hazardous Insurance, and Doubly Hazardous Insurance. The first category covered brick and stone buildings not used for hazardous trades. The second covered timber and plaster buildings or brick and stone buildings housing hazardous trades. The final category covered timber and plaster buildings used for hazardous trades and all premises of sugar bakers, distillers, china and glass manufacturers and other dangerous trades. This classification system was generally followed until the late nineteenth century, although the Sun Fire added special categories for steam-powered mills and refineries after 1794. After 1825, a continuous stream of information about all classes of risk passed between the fire offices, ultimately culminating in the formation of a fire insurance tariff or cartel.
Almost all types of property were covered by fire insurance, the only exceptions being a few classes of industrial property considered far too hazardous for any premiums to be set. The Sun Fire had considerable business in domestic property of all sizes, including many of the major country houses and town mansions. It insured agricultural property, including both buildings and livestock, and a wide variety of industrial and commercial businesses from small workshops to the largest of breweries, textile mills and dock warehouses. When it carried out a review of its industrial risks in the 1820s it found that it had on its books property relating to such diverse trades as ‘gingerbread bakers, bedstead upholders, oar makers, tallow melters and chandlers, lamp-black manufacturers and brushmakers’. Likewise it insured all types of shops and offices, theatres, churches, cloth halls, town halls, inns and brewhouses, schools and libraries.
The policy registers hold a vast amount of information about these different properties and their contents. Details of owners, tenants, partners, executors and occupations and places of residence are frequently recorded. Property contents, including livestock, libraries of books, clothing and wearing apparel, business and industrial stock, and machinery are specified. Many policies contain physical details of buildings insured, including numbers of storeys and rooms, and construction materials. Uses of property are also recorded, as well as details of heating and lighting methods and means of power. There are also of course the valuations of property and their contents for insurance purposes. The few surviving certificates suggest that claims were for estimated cost of replacement or for clearance and rebuilding already completed, rather than current or historic value. Some offices also considered it better for the proposer to under insure and assume some of the risk themselves.
By the second half of the eighteenth century the major London companies increased the pace of their expansion into the provinces. Agents appointed by the companies were responsible for the ordering of new business, the collection of premiums, and the presentation of receipts to London. Agents came from many walks of life. The preference was for people with good local connections. They generally ran their agencies as a second line to their major occupation, usually some form of business activity. In the eighteenth century small traders and retailers, local clerks and other small local business people typically took on the role. In the nineteenth century a broader range of people became involved. Retailers, merchants, commission agents, teachers, surveyors of taxes, clerks in various professions including banks, estate agencies, railway and canal offices and so on were all recruited. Solicitors also took on agencies and constituted 25 per cent of all country agents for the Sun Fire Office in 1846. Women were occasionally recruited. In 1807 the Sun Fire grudgingly admitted that Mrs Buchanan, their Glasgow agent, was ‘very active and as attentive to the business as a female can possibly be expected to be’.
Anyone interested in delving deeper can check out the Sun Fire policy registers themselves at the London Guildhall Library, Manuscripts Section. Sun Fire Office Registers, series 11’936.
There are quite a few histories of fire insurance companies but for more of an overview a good starting point would be:
H.A.L. Cocherell and E. Green, The British Insurance Business (Sheffield, 1994)
D.T. Jenkins, ‘The practice of insurance against fire, 1750-1840, and historical research’, in O.M. Westall (ed.), The Historian and the Business of Insurance (Manchester, 1984).
My own research utilising fire insurance records has been published widely. a list is available at www.alisonkayresearch.com